Parents who instruct are considered those who enforce order; the disciplinarians.  Ideal disciplinarians do so not by force, but with choice and consequences.  Discipline comes from the Latin word disciplina which means “instruction.”  To discipline means to instruct a person to follow a particular code of conduct; or to adopt a particular pattern of behavior.  Often discipline or disciplinarian has a negative connotation because order is enforced with punishment. 

Punishment does not really teach children other than how to be afraid or angry.  Punishment does not allow kids to practice and make mistakes.  Discipline allows kids to make mistakes without the fear of being judged or condemned. 

Discipline is perhaps the most difficult task of being a parent.  The emphasis needs to be helping children learn, teaching them to make better choices.  When delivering discipline, disciplinarians need to ask themselves what they want the child to learn.

Parents can Unwittingly Teach Children the Wrong Behavior

When children misbehave there are four causes:

  • the child is seeking attention;
  • the child is seeking power;
  • the child is seeking revenge; or
  • the child is seeking self-confidence. 

 Underlying these are primary needs the child is trying to fulfill.  Those needs could be hunger, thirst, air, rest, relief froChildren Make a Choice and Learn Consequences; Photo by user: woodley wonderworks, Source: flickrCredit: photo by user: woodley wonderworksm pain, or elimination of waste.  When disciplining kids consider what need they are subconsciously asking to be met.

How disciplinarians behave when disciplining their kids is a factor in determining how the children will behave or misbehave in the future.  Consistency is key to how to discipline.  Children will always test limits and caregivers must be consistent or children learn if they persist the caregivers will “give up”. 

Parents at times forget to focus on the behavior instead of the child.  Avoid criticism of the kid instead of the behavior such as telling him he is bad.  Children need to know it is the behavior that is unacceptable; not them.  Likewise, avoid going overboard with praise as this will tend to diminish the sincerity and make comments less effective.   Discipline finds the balance in praising the child to encourage learning and avoiding the negative punishing of character criticism.  In general it is best for caregivers to have a plan regarding how they will discipline their children as it is more likely that they will keep control of their own emotions and will avoid reacting negatively. 

Techniques of Effective Discipline

Discipline sets expectations for positive behavior.  It gives a warning before a consequence; but when consequences are necessary, discipline takes the form of either natural or logical consequences.  Discipline gives children clear choices and teaches that there is always a consequence to each decision (choice) they make (cause and effect); and, it can be positive or negative.  Encourage children to make positive choices; praise them when a positive choice is made.  

Discipline means setting limits that are age and developmentally appropriate; keeping charge of the situation, but also allowing children to make mistakes and learn from them without fear that they are no longer loved.  There are several techniques that disciplinarians use effectively: 

  • Remain calm.  Yelling and screaming will simply model the wrong thing; teach that it is okay to lose control if kids don’t get their ways.  Kids will usually start using a lower voice as parents continue to use a calm lower voice.
  • Distraction – get the kid’s attention away from the situation and onto something more appropriate.
  • Physically remove the kid from the situation.
  • Ignoring minor behaviors that will not hurt the kid or others (choose your battles).
  • Time outs for younger kids and grounding of older kids. 
  • Natural consequences -if the kid throws a toy out the car window he obviously loses it.
  • Rewards that are logical- if gum is taken from the mouth and played with; she can’t chew gum for a period of time. Withholding privileges can be a logical consequence.

Encourage Positive Behavior

The most effective discipline is encouraging children to behave positively.  It is much easier to reinforce good behavior than to have to try and change bad behaviors. Tips for encouraging positive behavior include:

  • Offer praise when they do well
  • Give children positive attention.  Be sure to comment on specific behaviors or actions.Teaching Discipline; Photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps- photographer: Lance Cpl. Michael Iams, Source: Wikimedia CommonsCredit: Photo courtesy of the United States Marine Corps- photographer: Lance Cpl. Michael Iams, Source: Wikimedia Commons
  • Give children choices whenever possible. This allows them some feeling of independence and helps them learn decision making. For example, offer a choice between setting the table or washing the dishes.
  • Make good behavior fun by making it a game when appropriate.  Children are more likely to comply if they are enjoying themselves. For example, say ‘let's see who can pick up the most toys.”
  • Set up an incentive system with rewards; short and long term.  This teaches instant and long-term gratification.

Discipline involves teaching children right from wrong, how to respect the rights of others, and which behaviors are acceptable and which are not.  Most importantly, caregivers need to provide kids with a safe environment in which they feel secure and loved.  The ultimate goal of discipline is to have kids develop self-confidence, self-discipline and know how to control their impulses and handle the frustrations of normal everyday stresses of life.


The copyright of the article Discipline is not Punishment is owned by Cheryl Weldon, MA, LMFT and permission to republish in print or online must be granted by the author in writing.

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Parenting - Kids and Discipline Across Cultures